G.N. Saibaba’s acquittal prompts calls to scrap UAPA

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Former Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba celebrates with his family after being released from the Nagpur Central Jail after the Bombay High Court acquitted him in an alleged Maoist links case, in Nagpur on Mach 7, 2024.

Former Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba celebrates with his family after being released from the Nagpur Central Jail after the Bombay High Court acquitted him in an alleged Maoist links case, in Nagpur on Mach 7, 2024. | Photo Credit: ANI

Additionally, the harsh and inhumane treatment meted out to prisoners underscores the urgent need for a law that criminalises such acts.

For over 10 years, G.N. Saibaba, a wheelchair-bound former Delhi University professor, “yearned for justice”. Various courts rejected his many requests for emergency and medical bail after his arrest under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for alleged Maoist links. On March 5 this year, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court acquitted him and five others saying the prosecution could not prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. The Maharashtra government appealed in the Supreme Court.

On March 11, a bench of Justices B.R. Gavai and Sandeep Mehta of the Supreme Court upheld the ruling and prima facie observed that the High Court judgment was “very well reasoned” as it emphasised the “presumption of innocence” principle. The bench categorically told Additional Solicitor General of India S.V. Raju that “once there’s an order of acquittal, that presumption gets fortified”.

Also Read | ‘UAPA must be scrapped’: Indira Jaising

Saibaba’s acquittal has given credence to the growing demand for the revocation of the UAPA on the grounds that it does not meet international human rights standards. The Narendra Modi government’s second tenure has seen widespread use of the UAPA against scores of rights activists, many of whom are still in jail.

Saibaba was arrested on May 9, 2014, under the UAPA and on the charge of criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code, nearly eight months after the Maharashtra Police claimed to have recovered “incriminating” documents, pictures, and videos from his house. On March 7, 2017, a sessions court in Gadchiroli convicted him for associating with banned Maoist organisations. He was lodged in Nagpur jail’s anda cell, a British-era oval-shaped high security block.

On October 14, 2022, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court acquitted Saibaba on the grounds that the state did not satisfy a crucial procedural safeguard; under Section 45(1) of the UAPA, no court can take cognisance of any offence relating to unlawful activities and membership of unlawful associations and their funding without the previous sanction of the Central government.

However, in an unusual response to an almost instant appeal filed by the Maharashtra government, the Supreme Court suspended the aquittal on October 15, a non-working day for the court. The special bench of Justices M.R. Shah and Bela Trivedi had observed that the accused had been convicted for a “very serious” crime “against the sovereignty and integrity of the country”.

When the Nagpur Bench acquitted Saibaba on March 5 this year, it stated that downloading communist or Naxal literature from the Internet or being a sympathiser of the ideology could not be per se treated as an offence under the UAPA. “In order to attract the offence of conspiracy, besides vague allegations that they have conspired to wage war against the government or advocate arms struggle, there is no other material,” the court noted. It also said that “the trial held despite violations of mandatory provisions of the law [UAPA] itself amounts to a failure of justice”.

After failing to convince the High Court to stay the judgment, the Maharashtra government moved the Supreme Court to appeal against the acquital. While hearing the Special Leave Petition, the Supreme Court admitted the appeal against Saibaba’s acquittal but did not specify any date for the hearing. “You can file for early hearing. There are two acquittals by different Benches [of the Bombay High Court]....Prima facie we find that judgment is very well reasoned,” Justice Gavai said.

The Committee for Defence and Release of Saibaba welcomed his acquittal along with those of Hem Mishra, Mahesh Tirki, Pandu Narote (who passed away in custody), Prashant Rahi, and Vijay Tirki. Underscoring the legal and political significance of the High Court verdict, the committee said in a statement: “The carefully argued order demonstrates beyond any possible doubt that the charges against these ordinary citizens of India were baseless, trumped up and unquestionably false. It sends a strong message of hope to other, similarly beleaguered victims of state repression, and is a ray of hope in a judicial system that is increasingly under threat of losing its autonomy, as a result of growing political pressures on it in India today.”

Interacting with the media in New Delhi on March 8 after his release, Saibaba complained of several ailments, including a heart condition, kidney stones, cysts in the brain and kidneys, and pancreatitis, besides “shooting pain” in the left portion of his body. “Now my heart is functioning at 55 per cent capacity due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. I am facing syncope attacks and fall unconscious,” he said, flanked by his partner, Vasantha Kumari, and members of the defence committee.

“I was in the same cell for eight and a half years without a wheelchair. It was a daily struggle to use the toilet, take a bath, or even fetch myself a glass of water. The prison doesn’t have a single ramp for people like me,” said Saibaba.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, state that the healthcare of prisoners is a state responsibility.In 2018, UN rights experts urged India to release Saibaba, stating that he “is suffering from more than 15 different health problems, some of which have potentially fatal consequences”.

Saibaba said his mistreatment started right from the time of his arrest from his Delhi residence. “When I was arrested in 2014, the policemen dragged me by my left hand, as a result of which that arm is swollen till date. After several delays, when I was taken to the hospital, the doctors told me that it was almost impossible to revive the muscular and nervous system.”

Saibaba added that he contracted COVID-19 two times and swine flu once in prison but was not provided emergency medical treatment. He told the media that a doctor had recommended a sleep study for him seven years ago but it was never conducted. He was given the medicines his family sent him only after his 10-day hunger strike inside the jail.

According to V. Muralidharan of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled, Sections 6 and 7 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 provide “protection from cruelty and inhuman treatment” and “protection from abuse, violence, and exploitation”. Muralidharan said the National Human Rights Commission’s intervention was sought on several occasions but it was of no avail. “His wheelchair was like his body organ but it was denied to him in jail,” he said.

Saibaba spoke of how he has had permanent post-polio paralysis since he was five “My mother, despite being uneducated, made every possible effort. She brought me up, she made sure that I got educated. She would take me to school in her arms. But I was refused permission to meet my dying mother or perform her last rites,” he said, breaking down as he spoke. “In jail, I was treated like the biggest terrorist in the world,” he said. Saibaba’s mother passed away in August 2020.

After his outburst, many on social media pointed out that Dera Sacha Sauda chief Ram Rahim, serving a 20-year jail term for raping two women, had been granted parole nine times in the past four years. Others pointed out that the state had willingly granted bail to the men convicted for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family members.

Saibaba pointed out that his lawyer, Surendra Gadling, was also in prison, implicated in the Elgar Parishad case (concerning alleged inflammatory speeches made at a public meeting, the Elgar Parishad in Pune, in December 2017). “He had been denied life-saving medicines, which have been prescribed by a government hospital, despite his fast-deteriorating health in prison,” he said.

Talking about Pandu Narote, another accused in the case, Saibaba said, “He died in front of me. He was taken to the hospital only after he started bleeding profusely through urine.”

The Elgar Parishad case has taken a heavy toll. Father Stan Swamy, 84, and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, died in custody in Mumbai’s Taloja prison in 2021. He was denied medical bail several times.

“Narote’s death, like the death of Father Stan Swamy earlier, and innumerable others like them, is a telling reminder that capital punishment can be systematically delivered, even when it is not judicially ordered....Such forms of implicit torture are as condemnable as explicit institutional torture,” said the Committee for Defence and Release of G.N. Saibaba.

Also Read | G.N. Saibaba reveals torture and injustice during 10-year imprisonment

The committee demanded that Saibaba and his fellow accused, as well as Pandu Narote’s family, be compensated for the years of unlawful incarceration. It said that all charges against activists who had been similarly detained under the UAPA in the Bhima-Koregaon case or during the anti-CAA/NRC struggle should be dropped and the should be released immediately.

Meanwhile, Delhi University professors Nandita Narain and Karen Gabriel have demanded that Saibaba be compensated for the loss of his service years and that the authorities be held accountable for his wrongful incarceration. After being implicated in the case, Saibaba was terminated from his job as an assistant professor at the English department of Ram Lal College, New Delhi. Expressing his desire to get reinstated, Saibaba said “I can’t imagine living my life without teaching.”

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